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The Economist - December 2004
Reflections on a rare but terrible calamity
THE clue lies in the Japanese name that has been adopted for them around the world: tsunami. Formed from the characters for harbour and wave, and commemorated in the 19th-century woodblock print by Hokusai that decorates so many books and articles about the subject (see article), the word shows that these sudden, devastating waves have mainly in the past occurred in the Pacific Ocean, ringed as it is by volcanoes and earthquake zones. Thanks to one tsunami in 1946 that killed 165 people, mainly in Hawaii, the countries around the Pacific have shared a tsunami warning centre ever since. Those around the Indian Ocean have no such centre, being lucky enough not to have suffered many big tsunamis before and unlucky enough not to count the world´s two biggest and most technologically advanced economies, the United States and Japan, among their number.
So when, on December 26th, the world´s strongest earthquake in 40 years shook the region, with its epicentre under the sea near the northernmost tip of the Indonesian archipelago, there was no established mechanism to pass warnings to the countries around the ocean´s shores. There would have been between 90 and 150 minutes in which to broadcast warnings by radio, television and loudspeaker in the areas most affected, the Indonesian province of Aceh, Sri Lanka and the Indian chain of the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Had such warnings been broadcast then many of the tens of thousands of lives lost would have been saved. How many, nobody can know, for the task of evacuation would have been far from easy in many of these crowded, poor and low-lying coastal communities. Equally, though, it will probably never be known exactly how many people have died (see article). Whereas in many disasters the initial estimates of fatalities prove too high, the opposite is occurring in this case.
The question of whether there should now be some sort of seismic and even tsunami warning system established for the Indian Ocean is not currently the most urgent one, however. After all, big tsunamis are thankfully extremely rare occurrences. There is no reason in science to believe that they are becoming any more likely. The most urgent questions concern how much humanitarian aid can be mustered by the world´s richer countries and how it can be distributed.
The Indian Ocean tsunami has been called the world´s worst ever natural disaster. In terms of cold statistics, that is wrong, even as the estimated death toll climbs well past 50,000. Other earthquakes have killed more, especially in poor and populous countries such as China: probably 600,000 or more in Tangshan in 1976, and 200,000 or so on two occasions in the 1920s. Iran lost an estimated 50,000 people to a quake in 1990 and a further 26,000 in Bam exactly a year ago to the day, on December 26th 2003. It is not even the Indian Ocean´s deadliest disaster, for cyclones have often brought worse, most notoriously in 1970 when the then new state of Bangladesh lost about 500,000 people.
What is special about this tsunami is the geographical extent of the devastation and the number of countries affected. Earthquakes produce terrible consequences, but normally of a highly localised sort. This time, particularly in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India and Thailand, the damage stretches across thousands of miles and involves millions of people. That produces a huge logistical challenge for international organisations and aid agencies: how to get relief supplies and, later, reconstruction assistance to so many places at more or less the same time. Much more of the money and planning will have to be devoted to planes, helicopters, trucks and supply lines than in “normal” disasters and relief efforts.
But let not everything about this terrible event feel bad. For in that very geographical challenge lies also an opportunity, one that comes in three main forms. The first is that the involvement in the disaster of so many resorts favoured by tourists from rich countries in the West and the richer parts of north-east Asia has given it even more prominence in those countries than the sheer horror of the fatalities would have produced. Such selfish distortions are regrettable in theory—who noticed while millions were dying in Congo´s wars?—but in practice they might as well be exploited. It ought to be possible to raise far more in charitable donations from individuals and organisations in rich countries for relieving this disaster than for single-country earthquakes or floods, for example.
The second is that the countries around the Indian Ocean itself should, on this occasion, feel motivated enough to assist each other, poor though all of them are, and to accept each other´s help. Those that were less affected and those on neighbouring seas, including the Arab countries and around the Pacific, must surely be persuadable that they too could easily have been affected by such an act of God, whichever God it may be considered to have been.
That sense of mutual vulnerability brings us back to the question of warning systems and to the third way in which this disaster could be turned into an opportunity. Money and complacency are two reasons why no tsunami warning system exists for the Indian Ocean. But the region also suffers from a political fear of co-operation. Suspicions and mistrust between many of the countries bordering the ocean, and between those in the seismically turbulent region beyond, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere, mean that habits of cross-border co-operation are weak. Even the exchange of seismic data is meagre, to say the least, let alone interchange on more politically and economically charged topics.
In 1999, when Greece and Turkey both suffered earthquakes in rapid succession, the urge to assist each other led to a considerable thaw in long-frosty relations. To build a warning system, including processes to share seismic data and to pass on alerts expeditiously, would not be an expensive operation. Nor would it prevent natural disasters in the future, such is the power and unpredictability of nature. But it could be a useful, non-controversial contribution to the easing of old political tensions—and to saving some lives.